Sarah Chayes went to Afghanistan in 2001 as a National Public Radio reporter to chronicle the fall of the Taliban and George W. Bush’s war on terrorism after Sept. 11.
She did her job well, winning international acclaim and awards for her compelling, vivid stories from the dangerous war zone. But a year or so into the assignment, Chayes decided that simply being a bystander wasn’t enough.
Fluent in Pashto, the New Hampshire native and Harvard graduate traded in her notebook and microphones for local garb and a new mission: owner of a Kandahar co-op that taught Afghan women how to produce and sell all-natural skin-care products from fruit, instead of toiling in the illicit opium poppy industry. Chayes won the locals’ respect, but slept with a Kalashnikov rifle by her side anyway.
Along her unusual journey from award-winning international war correspondent to soap saleswoman, Chayes became something else: one of the world’s foremost experts on the insidious and destabilizing nature of corruption. In a wide-ranging interview, Chayes told The Diplomat that she not only witnessed it in her reporting and in her dealings with former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his brothers, but also in her quest to obtain permits and supplies for her small soap business. In fact, she saw corruption everywhere she looked.
Chayes’s unwillingness to accept official explanations for Afghan bribery and theft under the guise of nation building led the American military in 2009 to bring her into the fold. She was tapped to serve as special adviser to Gens. David McKiernan and Stanley McChrystal, commanders of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and also helped the U.S. embassy develop an integrated approach to dealing with Afghan corruption, which was squandering huge amounts of U.S. tax dollars.
“In Afghanistan, corruption was in fact driving precisely the security crisis that we were ignoring corruption to address,” Chayes recalled, explaining how Afghan rage at financial and political corruption, and the seeming U.S. indifference to it, triggered seething hatred that created more violence. “It was driving me crazy because it kept being discussed as either-or — either we would focus on security or we would focus on corruption, and since security is more important, we would focus on security.
“It was so obvious to me in the Afghan context that the security crisis was due to people’s indignation at the abusively corrupt practices of the Karzai government and the perfectly reasonable perception of Afghans that we were in cahoots with it,” she added.
As an example, Chayes, whose current work examines the correlation between kleptocracy and the rise of militant extremism, cited U.S. efforts to support Karzai and his brothers. (Chayes herself ran a nongovernmental organization founded by Karzai’s older brother, Qayum, after leaving NPR but grew disillusioned with what she saw and left the group before starting her skin-care venture.)
“We kept serving as their air force, directing our drug raids against their [the Karzais’] rivals and kept paying them money — everything we did gave the indication that we were perfectly on board and enabling and facilitating it,” Chayes explained. “It’s no wonder the Afghans became indignant at us. It was far more because of that than civilian casualties or some guy burning a Koran in Florida.”
In January, Chayes’ second book, “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,” was published to positive reviews. The New York Times wrote that the book “makes a strong case that acute corruption causes not only social breakdown but also violent extremism.” In addition to Afghanistan, the book puts Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Nigeria under the microscope and finds dispiriting versions of corruption in each place.
Chayes argues that the link between dysfunction in these disparate countries can often be traced to endemic corruption, which has soared to such levels that “governments resemble glorified criminal gangs, bent solely on their own enrichment,” according to “Thieves of State.” Whether it’s a policeman demanding a bribe at a traffic stop, vote-rigging at the ballot box or a high-level official receiving kickbacks in a business contract, corruption pervades all levels of society. This in turn, Chayes contends, drives average citizens — fed up with the daily humiliation of propping up a mafia-like system — to revolution (as was the case in Egypt) or puritanical religion, often in the form of radicalism.
Now a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Chayes said she’s gratified by the recognition of her groundbreaking work. She also said recent high-profile cases such as the FIFA soccer corruption scandal that led to a 47-count indictment in the United States against top FIFA officials and executives, as well as massive protests against the Brazilian government’s malfeasance, have helped raise international consciousness of the issue. Violence erupting in corruption hotbeds such as Ukraine and Iraq has also shone a spotlight on the far-reaching effects of graft.
“The international context has confirmed a lot of what I suggest in the book,” Chayes said, adding that she decided to write the tome to “change the mentality” about corruption as an inevitable and unstoppable phenomenon. “My objective was to reframe the causal logic and cost-benefit analysis that applies to basic policymaking on corruption,” Chayes said.
She also pinpointed diplomats as a large part of the problem, even in the U.S. government, because they often overlook corruption among their hosts.
“I think there is a real problem here on the diplomatic side,” Chayes said. “By culture diplomats are diplomatic — they are in the business of maintaining relationships. It’s extremely uncomfortable for them [to confront corruption]. I found this not just in Afghanistan but everywhere I looked. The embassy tends to be in the business of cultivating a relationship with the government, so it becomes very uncomfortable about a lot of the activities.”
In Afghanistan, where she lived among the locals for nearly a decade, Chayes said she also noticed that diplomats were somewhat unlikely to interact with the general population.
“Part of it is structural,” she explained. “They are kind of set up to interact with their counterparts. Diplomats tend to interact with government officials, and in the case of Afghanistan they were pretty constrained from going outside of the compound.
“There was also, at least for most of the time, the additional problem that their mission was kind of [described] in terms of supporting the democratically elected government of Afghanistan. That meant they were reluctant — military and civilian — to interact with ordinary Afghans without some member of the Afghan government present. That meant they couldn’t really hear people’s grievances, and that meant the people couldn’t complain without being retaliated against afterward.”
She added: “I was out in the economy and I spoke Pashto and that gave me much more access to the Afghan people.”
Chayes said diplomats are often aware of government and private-sector corruption, but don’t seem to feel empowered to tackle it.
“Both structurally and culturally, they are extremely resistant to addressing this problem,” she told us. “I don’t think diplomats are less informed than other officials, but I do think all of them are under-informed because we are not looking at the phenomenon systemically.”
Chayes also said the Departments of State and Justice don’t seem to have an effective mechanism for dealing with widespread corruption in countries around the world, especially in conflict zones.
“If there is a security issue, corruption gets pushed to the backburner,” she said. “It’s almost always farmed out to specialized, little marginalized structures within bureaucracies. It’s incredibly stove piped.”
Some of those who work in the realm of fighting corruption have suggested that the very word “corruption” contributes to the problem because it encompasses so many different things — from nepotism to large-scale theft — without being specific. Chayes doesn’t share that view.
“I happen to like the word because when you stop and dwell on it for a minute, it does carry this very powerful meaning: abuse of public office for personal gain on the one hand, and the other a kind of moral turpitude,” she said.
“Clearly, I am focused on particularly acute manifestations of corruption,” she continued. “Corruption is pervasive and it is not just an activity that is indulged in in an ad-hoc way by individual officials. In fact, when you look at it closely, the governments I’ve looked at — and there are a lot of them — they have become essentially structured criminal organizations that are masquerading as governments.”
Chayes suggests that policymakers interested in thwarting corruption work harder to understand exactly how governments and the private sector collude to enable networks of venality.
“Very often these networks are government officials, but they also have private-sector members in their networks — banks, contracting companies, logistics companies that are actually part of the network, too,” she said. “They also have bona fide criminals in their network like drug traffickers and weapons traffickers,” she added, citing as an example the Kabul Bank scandal, said to be one of the world’s largest cases of banking fraud. The bank collapsed in 2010 after losing nearly $1 billion; Karzai’s brothers have been implicated in the stolen assets.
“In the case of the Afghans, Karzai was ransoming the Taliban hand over fist with money basically pillaged from the Kabul Bank,” Chayes charged. “We in the West have a tendency to kind of see licit actors such as government and the private sector, and we’ll fight about which is acting in the public good more, and we consider criminals and terrorists to be illicit actors.
“What I have found is that in too many of these countries, in fact, you have horizontally integrated networks and they are also vertically integrated,” she said. “There is no such thing as petty corruption because that is a part of the revenue stream for the klepto network going all the way to the top. The cop pays a part of his take to the precinct captain, who pays part to the district chief, who pays part to the provincial chief, and it goes all the way to the interior minister or quite high. And in Afghanistan that amounts to $2 [billion] to $5 billion a year.”
Chayes, who also served as a special adviser to then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, tells diplomats and others working in foreign countries to be wary of those who act as go-betweens for government and private-sector actors.
“Beware of the intermediary,” she said. “In a lot of these countries, people set themselves up as the reliable intermediary between the foreign intervener and the local population and that’s really dangerous. You tend to rely on that person for everything you need and then excuse whatever he or she does with the kind of power you have bestowed on them with your proximity and money.”
Chayes cheered recent news that 14 soccer officials, including seven high-ranking FIFA executives, were charged with corruption and bribery allegations involving soccer tournaments over the past 20 years. In July, former FIFA Vice President Jeffrey Webb was extradited from Switzerland, where the FIFA board had been meeting at the time of the arrests, to the United States.
“I know a lot of Europeans who are delighted and say why did it take the Americans to do it?” Chayes said, referring to longstanding suspicions that the soccer federation was essentially running a bribery racket.
But Chayes said she also finds it curious that the U.S. Justice Department seems keen to investigate and indict foreigners for corruption, but those involved in the banking crisis and financial meltdown than began in the United States in 2008 have largely escaped scrutiny. Former Attorney General Eric Holder has been intensely criticized in recent weeks for accepting a job at his former corporate law firm of Covington & Burling. The firm’s corporate client list reads like a who’s who of firms involved in the meltdown: JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Bank of America and more.
“Isn’t it interesting that we keep going after foreign institutions like FIFA, and look at the banks that have been subjected to civil lawsuits … look at the financial crisis,” Chayes said. “I haven’t seen very many Anglo-Saxon sons of the American Revolution get chucked in jail.”
Chayes pointed out that if U.S. officials wanted to target more domestic or foreign officials, it wouldn’t be hard under existing statutes.
“Every one of the legal instruments used against FIFA officials can also be used against foreign government officials,” she said. “That includes RICO [the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act], money laundering laws and a statute called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that prevents U.S companies from bribing foreign officials in order to gain access to markets.”
Chayes also wondered why — if the U.S. government is as opposed to corruption as it claims — President Obama and the White House recently invited Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to Washington for a coveted and prestigious state dinner. Brazilian opposition lawmakers are considering impeaching Rousseff in connection with a massive embezzlement scheme at the state oil company that has ensnared dozens of politicians. Meanwhile, the Brazilian currency is in shambles, inflation is rising and the economy is entering what may be its worst recession in 25 years. Public anger over rising corruption also fueled widespread protests earlier this year.
“Compare the FIFA arrest to the warm welcome extended to Dilma Rousseff, the embattled president of Brazil, who is believed to be shoulders deep in an oil money scandal,” Chayes said. “Why that kind of a disparity in treatment? I’m not saying we should cut off relations with Dilma Rousseff, but I am saying why roll out the red carpet for her when millions of Brazilians have taken to the streets in protest of egregiously corrupt behavior in her government? This point hasn’t been made yet, particularly not in the diplomatic community.
“It’s never suggested, why don’t we not have a state visit right now?”
About the Author
Michael Coleman (@michaelcoleman) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.